Finally, Sri Lanka to build memorial for Indian soldiers

April 28th, 2008 - 1:37 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
By M.R. Narayan Swamy
New Delhi, April 28 (IANS) Two decades after it booted them out, Sri Lanka is preparing to unveil a memorial near its parliament for Indian soldiers killed battling the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. The names of around 1,500 men, almost all of them from the Indian Army, are to be etched on black marble and topped by an eternal flame as part of a long-pending project now being executed by the Sri Lanka Navy.

It will be the first memorial dedicated to the Indian soldier outside India.

Final touches are being given to the memorial and it will be ready for a formal launch either May 22 or when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh goes to Sri Lanka for the South Asian Association for Regional Conference (Saarc) summit this summer.

An Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed in Sri Lanka’s northeast following a July 1987 bilateral peace pact aimed at ending Tamil separatism.

But the troops ended up fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from October that year, losing nearly 1,200 men until the last of the soldiers left Sri Lanka in March 1990. Nearly 2,800 men were also wounded, many maimed for life.

The roll of honour at the memorial, which will bear India’s official Ashoka emblem, will include names of Indian paramilitary forces, taking the total to some 1,500.

While the IPKF fought the LTTE, Sri Lankan president Junius Jayewardene who invited them lost power.

In a bizarre but bloody twist of events, his successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa, in June 1989 demanded the IPKF’s withdrawal. When that did not happen, he provided arms and ammunition to the LTTE to take on the IPKF.

Before the IPKF saga ended, it was also accused of killing large numbers of LTTE guerrillas as well as civilians, mainly Tamils, in the bruising war that earned the force the derisive name “Innocent People Killing Force”.

For years, many in the Indian military have grudged that Sri Lanka had not even bothered to acknowledge the role of Indian troops who died at the hands of the LTTE.

That situation is about to change, Indian and Sri Lankan military sources say.

“This will be in the memory of Indian armed forces who helped us to preserve the unity of our country,” a Sri Lankan military officer told IANS in a telephonic interview from Colombo.

“Our president (Mahinda Rajapaksa) was very particular that this memorial has to come up. He kept saying that 20 years have gone by and we had not fulfilled this pledge. It had dragged on too long. After all the (Indian) soldiers paid the supreme sacrifice.”

Work at the memorial began about six months ago. It will be ready in another two weeks.

The military officer added that most Sri Lankans now appreciated the role played by the IPKF. But when its members were dying, it came in the firing line of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who said its presence undermined their country’s sovereignty.

“Our people have realised what the Indian soldiers did,” the officer said. “They died fighting to keep Sri Lanka united. We can never forget their sacrifice. Today there is a lot of appreciation of their role.”

Lt. Gen. Ashok Mehta, who served in the IPKF in the island nation’s east, said the memorial had been talked about for years. “Initially they said there was some problem of land, and then something else. Now it is coming up. Better late than never.”

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